Harvard University

The Good Occupation – Harvard University Press Blog

The end of World War II found more than seven million American servicemen and women overseas. Most longed to get home immediately, but many instead became occupation troops in Europe or Asia, staying put for weeks, months, or even years. These oft-disgruntled “after-armies” were tasked with bringing order and justice to societies ravaged by war, performing the work of guards, judges, educators, and welfare workers. How did these profoundly dissatisfied troops, these homesick pleasure seekers more concerned with “liquor, lust, and loot” than with policing the wrenching aftermath of catastrophe, come to be regarded as the sequel to America’s “good war”? In The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace, historian Susan Carruthers explores “the alchemy that transformed the base metal of lived experience after World War II into the golden stuff of national legend,” a story that helps also to explain how the U.S. acquired its postwar “empire of bases” across Europe and Asia. Below, Carruthers recounts how the rhetoric of America’s toppling of Saddam Hussein inspired her look back.


The Good OccupationFor six months before the launch of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in March 2003, President George W. Bush, his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, and other key advocates of a war to topple Saddam Hussein made repeated references to postwar Germany and Japan. Their intention was to reassure doubters about the wisdom of a war in Iraq with a reminder that, nearly sixty years earlier, American forces had managed to transform two of the most noxious and fanatical foes into peaceful, prosperous allies. If the Axis powers could be completely remodeled thanks to the United States’ military power and financial largesse, how much simpler to oust Saddam and make over Iraq as a democratic state? Summoning images of V-E Day euphoria, advocates of Iraq’s invasion went so far as to suggest that American troops entering Baghdad would be greeted with “sweets and flowers.”

As a professional historian, I paid close attention to this mobilization of the past. For one thing, the analogy didn’t seem to fit. An invaded country would surely not submit to the presence of foreign troops in the same way as exhaustively defeated enemies had done decades ago. Prominent scholars, most notably John Dower, author of a Pulitzer-winning book on the occupation of Japan, Embracing Defeat, made the same point. Iraq in 2003 did not, and would not, resemble either Germany or Japan in 1945. Subsequent events proved the point.

But I was more intrigued by another question: not whether the comparison itself was justified but precisely how Bush and other advocates of war with Iraq invoked the past. Something was odd. Because even as these politicians kindled rosy visions of postwar Germany and Japan, they hesitated to acknowledge the depth of the US military footprint there. Both countries remained formally occupied from 1945 until 1952. After that date, the Japanese island of Okinawa remained under US sovereignty until 1972, home to tens of thousands of American troops throughout the Cold War, as was Germany. Bush’s insistence that “we left only constitutions and parliaments” not “occupying armies” omitted a good deal. (Listen to his radio address of March 2, 2003.) His reluctance to acknowledge that occupation troops had stayed put in Europe and Asia, in large numbers and for long years, was part of a broader phenomenon. No advocate of war with Iraq seemed willing to call “occupation” by name. The word was taboo—with reference to the past, present, and future alike. L. Paul Bremer, who spent a year as Iraq’s provisional governor, later explained that the White House avoided the “O-word” as it sounded so “ugly” to American ears. Even though past exercises in military government supplied positive historical lessons, the word itself remained somehow unutterable.

This paradox caught my attention. So, too, did one other aspect of the pre-war debate in 2003. For all their other disagreements, supporters and critics of the invasion of Iraq agreed on one thing. They shared a belief that postwar Germany and Japan were indeed shining success stories—miraculous makeovers that were apparently as effortless as they were instantaneous. Could it really have been so? And did Americans understand things that way while those occupations were in progress? It struck me as most unlikely. After all, we know from writers like Paul Fussell and Studs Terkel that many of those who fought the “good war” didn’t possess nearly such high-minded notions about America’s wartime mission as retrospect would have us believe. The “moral clarity” so often attributed to World War II is largely an artifact of hindsight. If it required time for the “worst war in history” (in Fussell’s phrase) to become the best war ever, then was the same not true of its sequel, the “good occupation”?

How this transformation happened is the subject of The Good Occupation. Its central protagonists are the American men and women in uniform tasked with occupying the defeated Axis powers and countries wrested from their control during and after World War II. How did they make sense of their assignment? What did it mean to be part of an occupying army? Meanwhile, what stories did civilians tell about how well—or poorly—their soldiers were “winning the peace” in Europe and Asia as the occupations unfolded? And how did these stories mutate over time?

To answer these questions, I spent five years tracking down unpublished letters, diaries, oral history interviews, memoirs and photo albums of soldiers who served in Italy, Germany, Japan, Korea and other less well remembered sites of occupation. My aim was to locate material by service personnel of both sexes, multiple ethnicities, and of every rank from private to four star general. This quest took me to about thirty archives in fifteen different states across the country, yielding an amazingly rich trove of material, as unfamiliar as it is eye-opening.